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Guts (14 May 22)

One of Nature's most beautiful feeding tubes in action

I very much enjoyed a recent BBC4 miniseries called Nature and Us: A History through Art. It was presented by the art historian James Fox, and outlined the way mankind’s changing relationship with the natural world can be perceived through the development of art from prehistoric times to the present day. The three programmes used half-a-dozen or so talking heads to offer additional perspective, and one of these was Melanie Challenger, who was simply introduced as the author of How to Be Animal, a book which bears the subtitle, A New History of What it Means to Be Human.


Struck by the title of her book, I sought it out and read it. Despite excellent reviews, both of the promotional kind and of the ones that appear on the Amazon website, I ended up having some sympathy with one amateur reviewer from the US who gave it two stars and said, “This book follows a recent unfortunate trend where listing endless references, rehashing the work of others, and pondering the meaning of topics without reaching conclusions is the norm. Yes, there is a lot of good information here but the author does not see it their job to be concise or distill any original thought from their research.” A bit harsh perhaps, but to my taste it did lack a developed thesis and clear lines of argument. It is certainly not the book that I would have written.


With a wry nod in the direction of an “equation” I once saw in a slightly different context – MODERN ART = I COULD HAVE DONE THAT + YEAH, BUT YOU DIDN’T -  I started thinking about how I would have structured a book to cover the same broad argument as Ms Challenger. Her view is that, for one reason or another, humans have chosen to forget or deny their animal nature, and are worse off as a result. I think I would have organised it under four basic headings:

(1)  What Is an Animal? Ms Challenger does talk a bit about energy, entropy, life and evolution, but she does not really pin down the difference between animals and all other life forms (and there are thought to be at least five kingdoms or domains of life).

(2)  In What Ways are We Similar to Other Animal Forms? There’s obviously much here to do with energy, reproduction, mortality and sense experience. In this last category belongs a good discussion of the recent findings of affective neuroscience, which shows that humans share the same emotional systems as all other mammals.

(3)  By What Means Have We Sought to Deny Our Animal Nature? There is much to say on this, but I think some major sources of our denial are spiritual beliefs and codes that have stressed the pre-eminence of humanity against the rest of “creation”. The only such belief system on which Ms Challenger spent much time was humanism, which is interesting in both senses of the word: genuinely thought-provoking but also odd in ignoring the much more obvious target of the Abrahamic religions.

<4)  What Are the Consequences for Our Relationship with the Rest of the Living World and Our Planet in General? There is obviously a rich discussion to be had about how the disavowal of our animal nature is involved in the way we exploit other species and generally trash the physical prerequisites for our existence.


Interestingly, as I first wrote the previous paragraphs, I kept writing “animal origins” rather than “animal nature”. We would not say that an elephant has animal origins. My shoes have animal origins – because they are not animals. Paper has plant origins, because it is not a plant. We do not have animal origins, because we are animals. So even as I was writing in the full glare of cognisance that we are animals, a little voice in my head must have been telling me that we are not. I may not have admired Ms Challenger’s book unreservedly, but she really does have a point!


I am not going to write the whole book, but I have had recent cause to ponder the first question, “What Is an Animal?” A good starting point for such consideration comes from Ms Challenger’s book, where she refers to a discussion with NASA scientist Michael Russell: “[He] once counselled me to remember that life is ‘an entropy generator’. In other words, life decreases its internal entropy by using free energy from its surroundings and dissipating it as heat that, in turn, generates greater entropy in the environment.” In less physicist language, life maintains its stability (e.g. of cell fluids, membranes, and complex molecules) against the chaos of the outside world by taking in energy in forms that it can use and expelling those that it cannot. Think of the organism as a mediaeval castle under siege. Cartloads of food are smuggled in to keep the inhabitants fit and healthy, and the waste trickles down the walls into the moat.


Even more simply, life harnesses energy to stop itself becoming mush. And, as mediaeval soldiers found, the best defences against mush are good strong physical barriers. In the case of living organisms, these are membranes and the walls to hang them on, and the building material for these barriers is carbon. Other molecules are involved, but only carbon allows for the production of long chains and the potential for a wide range of complex chemistry to make them interesting. A mature oak tree is about 50 per cent carbon, and even the carbon content of humans, who are mostly water, is about 18 per cent.


Carbon makes up significantly less than one per cent of the mass of the earth, and it would have been chiefly available to the earliest life-forming processes as carbon dioxide. As such, a solid which turns directly into a gas at -78oC, it is entirely valueless for building. To be useful, it needs to be “fixed” into short chains which can be used as energy sources (in the form of sugars) or fused into much longer chains for storage or structural purposes (such as starch and cellulose). Bend them around a bit, and vary the addition of other atoms ever so slightly, and you get fats and proteins, including DNA, which is the information-carrier for almost all life on earth.


Apart from a few so-called extremophiles, which harness energy from rare chemical sources, such as occur around geothermal vents, virtually all the energy for carbon fixation on earth comes from the sun: way, way over 99 per cent of it. Early life forms seem to have sorted out three different ways of getting the benefit of this solar energy. The first of these was to fix the carbon themselves. So-called autotrophs, one or more forms of bacteria and cyanobacteria, hit on the neat trick of stitching free carbon dioxide molecules together, using solar photons to displace cellular electrons that are crucial to the energy cascade that draws the free carbon dioxide into a carbon chain. I don’t understand it, and I believe that no-one has yet precisely replicated this process in a lab, despite the fact that it was worked out several times by something with the charm and intellect of snot during the most convulsive time in earth’s history.


The second strategy for getting hold of solar energy was kidnapping. Picturesque examples of this can be found everywhere in the diminutive and slow-growing lichens: mutualistic partnerships between fungi, which do not photosynthesise, and algae and/or cyanobacteria, which do. The fungus provides the mechanical protection and the minerals, while the coloured stuff provides the energy. Everyone’s happy. Really happy in fact: it has been estimated that six-to-eight per cent of the earth’s land surface is covered by lichen. However, there is an even more effective example of kidnapping. It is now generally believed that the chloroplasts of green plants, the parts of cells where photosynthesis takes place, were once free-living cyanobacteria that became engulfed inside a bigger cell. Perhaps they were eaten as food, or acted on their own behalf as parasites, but somehow they avoided the fate of intruders generally and became incorporated by their hosts, regulating their reproductive cycle to the same rhythm and eventually passing most, though not all, of their genes to the main cell.


Much of earth life is thus autotrophic. Whether by invention or assimilation, a huge number of species directly absorb solar energy in this way. The third solution was simpler and more brutal. It is known as heterotrophism, and it simply means eating the things that have already done the job for you. It is the strategy used by many bacteria, many single-celled organisms, some plants, all fungi (except insofar as they participate in mutualistic relationships), and all animals. Once they have worked out that there is something out there which is a source of fixed carbon, they will try to devour it in the best way they can.


And now we are homing in on what makes an animal. Simpler organisms tend to feed by cosying up to their prey and secreting digestive enzymes onto them, breaking down walls and membranes so that the contents can be absorbed directly into the surface of their own cells. They may ooze around them, capturing their food in temporary pockets which can be closed to produce a vesicle in which digestion may proceed at leisure. Or they may, like fungi, robe foodstuffs in fine bodily projections, or filaments, which allows maximal contact for digestion and absorption. Almost all animals, and all but the very earliest to emerge, do things rather differently: they pass their foodstuffs through their body on a clearly defined path.


The simplest creatures in the animal kingdom are amongst the most ancient. The Placozoans just shimmy along the sea floor like pinhead-sized pancakes until they are on top of food, and then form a cavity around it until it is digested. All the same, the first animals in the evolutionary record are probably the sponges (Porifera), appearing perhaps 750 million years ago. They feed by filtering nutrient-laden water through their bodies, with specialist cells breaking down and absorbing what they can from the food particles carried through. The Cnidaria, a diverse group containing jellyfish, sea urchins and sea anemones, are almost as ancient. They have specialist feeding cells, some of which are very elaborate, a mouth and something which we might loosely think of as a feeding chamber, but they have no anus, so do not pass food all the way through. Another early animal group is the Ctenophora, or comb-jellies. These beautiful, ghostly creatures have a closable mouth, specialist digestive cells, a cavity that amounts to a stomach, and even an anus, through which it ejects small unwanted food particles. They do not follow more familiar architecture in that the stomach is the centre of a network of canals for internal transport, and despite the novelty of a through-system, most waste matter is still expelled from the mouth. There is nothing ineffective about their feeding mechanisms, however: when food is plentiful they can get through ten times their own body weight in a day.


These early exceptions apart, modern animals belong to the grouping of Bilateria. With their emergence in the fossil record at least 555 million years ago, we are no longer troubled by the plant-like immobility of most sponges, the one-way food chambers of the jellyfish, or the weird internal architecture of the comb-jellies. Four classic features suddenly heave into view. Firstly, as the name suggests, such animals have bilateral symmetry, at least in the embryo, such that they have left and right sides that are mirror images of each other. Secondly, their bodies are segmented, as is apparent from the simplest worm to the buried traces of the vertebrate spine. Thirdly, their body shape is essentially a modified cylinder, with a gut running between an opening at each end. Fourthly, there are three layers of tissue, namely ectoderm, from which derives the outer linings of the body and the nervous system, the endoderm, which largely comprises the gut and its adjuvant organs, and between the two the mesoderm, giving rise to all other tissues of the body, including the heart, blood, muscles and, in vertebrates, the skeleton.


It could be argued that the evolution of the gut is the truly distinctive feature of animal evolution. Once food intake is limited to a small specialist area of the body, it becomes highly important that the gut opening can be moved and manoeuvred to the right places, stimulating a drive for mobility. Once an animal has gone to the trouble of providing a gut with openings at either end, its effectiveness and efficiency can be much increased by elongating it, which provides an incentive for segmentation. And a long body, mobile, consisting of increasingly specialised tissues and organs, needs a great deal of coordination and maintenance, stimulating the development of nerves and an internal transport system. Such an animal, whether it is a parasitic worm or a cheetah, is just a feeding tube that propels itself around its environment to gain enough resources to reproduce. A very sophisticated feeding tube; that’s it.


Until a couple of weeks ago I might have restricted my own perspective here to the question of what I eat. For about a third of the 46 years of my adult life, off and on, I have been a vegetarian, and another such period has recently come to an end in a haze of guilt and confusion. At the moment I cannot decide whether I am a meat-eater who cannot bear to take the life of another sentient being, or a vegetarian who likes the taste of meat. Interestingly both the confusion and the guilt ease slightly when one faces the inescapable animal fact that we are heteromorphs: that however we do it, we get our energy and our fixed carbon unearned, on the backs of organisms who have done all the hard work for us. It doesn’t cut through a whole raft of convincing ethical, ecological and medical arguments to the effect that reliance on meat products is a bad idea, but it dispels the tantalising notion of perfection that bedevils many nutritional codes.


However, since then, I have had another reason to reconsider my attitude to the animal gut. Having survived more than two years of the worst global pandemic for a century without contracting Covid, something that amounted to little more than a bad sore throat landed me in hospital for two days. It would normally have been a Lemsip-and-dry-toast job, except that on this occasion I found myself completely unable to swallow liquids, and within a few hours was starting to dehydrate. Ask most people what is likely to lead to a quick death and, apart from obvious major trauma involving a head injury, asphyxiation and blood loss would probably be the two things that most readily spring to mind. Both are, after all, the basis of some of the most popular forms of suicide. It is true that dehydration is not as quick as any of these methods, but it is still a reliable route to oblivion. The body can generally last eight-to-ten days without fluids, though it risks a cascade of potentially-fatal problems before that time is reached. In any case, most people begin to drift in and out of consciousness by the third day and later become unarousable. Suddenly not being able to take on fluids, and feeling the effects within one’s body, is a scary experience.


Sponges have many problems, but they do not have to worry about dehydrating from a sore throat. It’s not just that they don’t have throats, but water permeates their bodies from almost every surface. In committing to a specialised gut with a highly localised opening, the Bilateria opened the way to a plethora of nutritional strategies, plus a range of machinery for respiration, communication, reproduction, and even – with the swim-bladders of most bony fishes - movement. However, evolutionary commitment came at a price, and that price was dependency. A problem with the gut is a problem, and potentially a fatal problem, for the whole animal.


Forty-odd years ago I was chastened to be told that the truly unique anatomical adaptation of hominids like ourselves was not our much-vaunted large brains. Large brains exist all over the animal kingdom. No, the thing that makes the hominid body truly unique is its bipedally-adapted foot. Without it we would never have walked truly upright and freed our hands for all the things that mark us out as different from the animals around us. How much more sobering, however, is the thought that, as animals, we are fundamentally just feeding tubes looking for our next meal? If we want to know how to be animal, we just need to pay attention to this fact.


In the current debate about climate change and environmental catastrophe, one book I would recommend is There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee. He has no hesitation in centring his analysis of how billions of humans could ever live sustainably on our small and fragile world on the question of how we should feed ourselves. Feeding has the most important carbon footprint of all the activities we undertake, and this is fitting given its importance in our biology. However, like the reviewer I quoted in my second paragraph, I’m not sure Ms Challenger’s book comes to such a clear conclusion, beyond the fact that being an animal can be rather lovely, and that we would all lose something precious if it stopped. But for me it’s all about the feeding tube. To see the world as if our gut had a perspective all of its own: to see the rest of the body (excepting the reproductive system, but including the brain), as little more than a support system for nine metres of gastro-intestinal tract: that is what it takes to <be> animal and embrace the fact.


It is a subject for another day, but if we want to understand the deanimalisation of the human psyche, we should undoubtedly examine the deanimalisation of how we feed. Perhaps the fact that we no longer regard ourselves as paying members of the animal ark owes much to the way we eat, and how we distance ourselves from food with all sorts of ignorance, delusion, ritual and myth. With environmental catastrophe becoming ever more likely, that is something we may have to change.

Racist and Wrong (11 Nov 20)

How did we get to this? This is not a piece I would be writing if I were hoping to become Labour Party leader in 20 years, or even a Conservative councillor for Stirling. But I am not. I am mildly hoping to be breathing in 2040, and even that ambition may be beyond me. If I wanted more from the world, these words would be a problem, for I am clearly racist and wrong.


It started for me when I was walking my dog through Stirling on Sunday morning, 25 October, listening to Broadcasting House on my earphones. Lucy Mangan was a guest, and she was talking about TV programmes to get people through Covid isolation. She described I May Destroy You as “the everything of the year”, and said, “On top of it being a really gripping drama, it’s just the best thing I’ve ever seen.”


As someone who has loved television since he first saw Andy Pandy jerkily going through his monochrome motions on a 1950s set with a treacherous vertical hold, I thought this had to be worth a look. Is it really up there with I Claudius, The Killing, and Breaking Bad? Well no, not quite. Not in my book, anyway. On the other hand, enough people find it truly amazing, judging by the reviews on IMDb, that it must be very special indeed. It is undoubtedly good, and it is certainly interesting.


In her Guardian review, Ms Mangan puts forward an argument that is remarkably strange. Describing I May Destroy You as “a sexual-consent drama if you want the one-line pitch,” she goes on: “It works on every level and succeeds by any metric you care to throw at it. As such there will be people who will insist that my (and implicitly any other) praise for it is a result of the current febrile atmosphere.”


And this is where she does the weird thing. Those people, she says, “are racist and wrong”. No ifs, no buts, no qualifications: “racist and wrong”. Her argument for this assertion rests on two apparently disparate facts. The first of these is that the author-creator and star of I May Destroy You is Michaela Coel, a black woman, born in London to Ghanaian parents. The second is “the killing of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police, and the consequent mass protests against the individual and systemic racism that enabled his and many more similar deaths across the world.”


Huh? How does the fact that the driving force behind I May Destroy You is a black woman, and the fact that individual and systemic racism has been evidenced by the killing of George Floyd, mean that I can’t have reservations about the programme without being racist and wrong? It seems like the worst kind of totalitarian thinking, or am I being racist for reacting like this?


I certainly have no wish to challenge Ms. Mangan’s passion for what is a stylish and thought-provoking piece of work but, when she has hung a large banner across the arena with the words “Racist Entrance”, I am distinctly reluctant to embark on a discussion that is easily open to misinterpretation. As a sexual-consent drama, I May Destroy You certainly raises awkward issues. The first episode concerns an aspiring author, Arabella Essiedu, played by Michaela Coel, who leaves her desk for a “break” whilst up against an overnight deadline for her second novel. The night ends with her at her desk again, typing nonsense, but with the fragmented memory of a man looming over her in a pub toilet, subjecting her to a sexual assault. The remaining 11 episodes show how she handles this memory, making it real, fitting it into the wider tapestry of her experience, and finally processing it to some sort of conclusion.


The problem for an old fogey like myself is that most of the most vulnerable characters in this drama operate with appalling disregard for their own safety. They wander around with no clothes and no money, drunk and drugged to the eyeballs, and have sex with all manner of strangers. It’s not just me. Amongst the rapturous reviews on IMDb, there are a few strained voices. This one, for example:


These people are shallow, narcissists and idiots. IDIOTS. I can't even point enough how much idiots they are. Or maybe it is the YOLO thing? Cause they do not seem to think that their actions can have consequences. Not only for them but for their friends too. "Is my friend completely trashed by alcohol and drugs? I will let her alone in the bar so I can find some strangers to have a threesome with."

Not to mention that everyone has sex with every random person they meet. It is like if everyone treats everyone else like sex-meat and nothing more.

You know I never blame the victims of abuse. NEVER. But the pervs are out there. And going to have sex with random strangers while you are high on drugs increases the chances of getting assaulted. You are still the victim and the rapist must be punished. But why, why oh why make his "job" easier? These monsters thrive because people can't think. Just take some basic precautions for crying out loud.


Within the programme, this foil is provided by the Italian drug dealer with whom Arabella imagines she is having a relationship. Told to present himself to the Italian police to provide a DNA sample, his reaction is solely to blame Arabella for allowing her drink to be spiked. “You deserved to be raped,” he tells her, in the manner of those judges from different times who looked at the mini-skirt a rape victim was wearing and offered sympathy to the accused for the provocation he suffered. His unpleasantness is subsequently underlined by the fact that he pulls a gun on Arabella to drive her away when she descends upon him in Ostia.


It feels foolish to weigh into the consent issue so casually, but the characters in I May Destroy You really do push the boundaries of dangerous behaviour. Even more disturbing is the fact that so many IMDb reviews attest to the realism of the series. “I don't know when I have seen a show that depicted real life so accurately,” said one. “Breathtakingly real,” said another. “To dislike this show is to dislike the truth,” adds a third. “Real life… honest… truthful… real… real… entirely relatable… realistic… relatable… real… realistic.” A lot of people see themselves in this. But should they? Is there something wrong with a society in which so much daft behaviour is seen as edgy and authentic?


One of the problems is that the consent issue has often been seen in terms of <blame>, dictionary definitions of which talk about responsibility for a fault or wrong. We all know how this works: something goes wrong at work or in a school or family, and there’s a fault-finding exercise to hand someone the blame… at which everyone else breathes a sigh of relief. It has somehow become etched into at least the cruder forms of Western thinking that fault follows a single line, like electricity striking a lightning rod. Blame can be shared between different agencies of course, but the idea of blame is so shameful and hideous that we tend to concentrate on a single line of transmission with blame travelling in series, so to speak, leaving everyone outside the main line relatively undamaged. Using this way of thinking, it follows that if a rape victim is wearing a short skirt, or is drunk, or has a propensity for unguarded sexual behaviour, it somehow subtracts from the rapist’s crime, reducing both his culpability and his sentence.


Many Eastern codes are very big on blame and shame, but Buddhist thinking introduces some helpful nuances. One of my favourite wisdom stories perfectly illustrates part of this issue. As so often, it features an old Zen sage, reluctantly summoned to advise a powerful man. The Emperor, as it is on this occasion, is offended that the holy man does not seem particularly fearful or overawed before the court. “Are you not afraid of me?” he asks, angrily. “No, not really,” replies the old man. “What about the Grand Vizier, or the Treasurer, or the Head of the Imperial Household? Surely you’re afraid of them?” The sage shakes his head. “Well, is there anyone here who <does> frighten you?” The old man looks up. “Yes,” he says. “Well who is it?” demands the Emperor. “It’s the bloke by the door,” says the sage, indicating an ordinary common soldier minding the entrance to the chamber. “But why?” asks the Emperor, truly exasperated now, “he’s the least important man in the room.” “Ah yes,” replies the old man, “but he’s the one with the sword.”


It’s an important story for at least two reasons. Firstly it underlines that, for all the imperial and courtly trappings the old man encounters, it’s the sharp steel that does the damage. It’s a lesson to remind us to look for the real point of a situation. Secondly, it’s a comment about personal responsibility. If the Emperor turns nasty, he may well order the guard to kill the old man. Nevertheless, it is still the soldier’s decision about whether to obey. He might not feel he has much choice about the matter, but the old man has not forgotten that he must be the one to strike the fatal blow. The frightening thing here, he seems to imply, is not the Emperor’s wrath, but the guard’s willingness to obey him. Of course it’s not; he’s just making a point – but it’s a highly nuanced point about action and consequences, and one take-away is that both Emperor and guard are interconnected in a system which is no more all about the one than all about the other.


Rape is emotionally laden and politically charged. A less contentious scenario can be imagined by going back to a front-line trench in the First World War. If a British soldier puts his head above the parapet and gets shot, whose fault is it? Is it the sniper’s who picks him off, or is it the soldier’s for being careless of his own safety? Perhaps it’s the sniper’s fault, but what if the soldier were to march up and down on top of the trench carrying a placard proclaiming “Death to the Kaiser”? Or what if he strolls across no-man’s land to take a pee in a German trench? It’s still the sniper who pulls the trigger, but – somewhere along the line – it must follow that the soldier is at fault for being careless with his own safety. Even if the soldier has gone insane, substantial fault must lie with the man’s superiors for failing to protect him. Yet the sniper did the deed.


Blame and responsibility for rape does not rest on the simplistic argument that, if the victim’s skirt is a bit too short, the rapist is a bit less rapey. On the other hand, the fact that the rapist is doing a bad thing does not absolve the victim from the responsibility of self-care. A rape is still a rape, but there are consequences for risky behaviour. I think this is what I May Destroy You was primarily exploring, for Arabella is far from innocent, even though she is an undoubted victim, and many of the characters play both victim and villain through the twists of the plot. That is why it is so engrossing.


But just as I have taken account of the many adoring reviews that I May Destroy You has received, so it would be wrong to ignore the negative ones. Perhaps many are just racist and wrong, but I don’t think they all are. “I don’t get the rave reviews… Self-indulgent rubbish… Dross… Disappointingly bad… This show may bore you… No more than a constructed carrier for agendas… Bloody vile and disgusting… Just bloody gross... Rubbish… What a shambles.” I haven’t gone down the page very far to pick up these comments. Perhaps at least some of the detractors are, like the reviewer I quoted at length earlier, just reacting to the fact that there is something missing from the narrative, or at least in very short supply. It seems to me it is the disciplined masculine principle, characterised by protection and appropriate penetration: the yang of life; the soldier with the sword. It stands in contrast to the disciplined feminine principle, the yin responsible for nurture, receptivity and many form of creativity.


The feminine principle abounds in I May Destroy You. There’s an awful lot of feeding, receiving, and even creating going on, though not all of it is very disciplined. The masculine principle is almost entirely present in its undisciplined, unharnessed form, most particularly in the form of three acts of rape, and we see the absence of its disciplined, protective form in numerous subtle ways: the father who never shows up, the policeman who leaves a door open on a rape victim, the agoraphobic man who can’t even secure his own bedroom, the agent helpless to protect his client from her financier and publisher, the police officers who close the case when they are both heavily pregnant. And while the women occupy a range of positions from angel to bitch, all the men are rapists, bastards or drips.


In Arabella’s world, it is not worth standing up to masculine role models and testing them for strength – it either squashes them or turns them into tyrants and abusers. Instead there is levelling down in the sexual power game which leaves everyone humiliated and confused. In a twist of the sexual power dynamic worthy of Jane Eyre, Arabella finally accepts help from the penetrative, discerning, Cambridge-educated man who had earlier taken advantage of her, but only when he reappears in her life emasculated, under a female pen-name. Even then, she only manages to engage him by sending him a picture of herself on the toilet – the feminine in a most vulnerable position. A race to the bottom indeed.


There must be books, and perhaps whole libraries, about why the masculine principle has failed in our culture and so readily appears spineless or distorted. Perhaps, and here I flirt with racism again, there are reasons why this plays out so often in black dramas. The effects of colonialism and, in some parts of the world, slavery, have left systemic wounds that will take many generations to heal. Add to this the general backlash against millennia of female oppression, the coarsening effects of the military-industrial complex that reached new heights in the last century, and the extraordinary adjustments required of society with the development of mechanisation and mass communication, and it is not hard to see why the masculine principle so often acts like a wounded bear, without discipline, compassion or discernment. Men look to feminine principles to guide them where there is a lack of the true masculine, and sometimes this can lead to an evil soup. "Where have all the husbands gone?" asked Pete Seeger in 1955. He and Joe Hickerson, who completed the famous round, had in mind serried rows of crosses in military graveyards – which is a largely masculine concept. Perhaps the truth is scarcely less awful: that somehow we are losing a legitimate role for the masculine, which now rears its head in rape, drug-dealing and industrial warfare.


I liked I May Destroy You, but I so objected to what it said about our society that I could not like it a lot. Is it enough for a drama to be real, as many reviewers seem to claim, or does it need to commend a way to a better place? Either way, it is probably not a woman’s job to tell the masculine what it should be doing. I am definitely not saying that women cannot express and channel the masculine to a remarkable degree, I am simply arguing that the heavy lifting must sometimes be left to those most biologically connected to the principle involved. It is men who have let the side down here, and it is men who need to put it right. I May Destroy You suggests we may have left it too late.

Going to Hell to Prove a Point (25 Oct 20)

Artwork from the New English Library cover of Jizzle

My last piece (Post-fiction, 22 Sep 20) talked a lot about science fiction and argued that, when the characters within a narrative stop believing in it, the story falls apart. As I was putting the finishing touches to it, I realised that the point had been made much more elegantly some 67 years earlier by a favourite science fiction writer from my youth, John Wyndham.


John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was born in Warwickshire in 1903 and died in 1969. He used all of these names at some time or another for authorial purposes, but the books published under the first two are the best known. I did not name him in the list of those whose space fiction I had enjoyed as a boy, because the best Wyndham stories are set in the ordinary world, or the ordinary world propelled forward to an apocalyptic time. Among the stand-out classics like The Day of the Triffids and The MIdwich Cuckoos are several slim volumes of short stories, and one of these is the only survivor in my adult bookshelf from the substantial science fiction collection I left behind me at 19. I held onto it in case I could never find it again.


The anthology Jizzle was published in 1954, but contains a story, Confidence Trick, that dates from a year earlier. It’s a slight tale, not particularly well written, and it does not make the most of the premise it contains. To be honest, it has something of the air of a penny-dreadful. But it is a cracking idea.


A crowded Tube train hits a bump near Chancery Lane station. The lights go out and, when they come on again, the carriage contains just a few occupants. For some hours the train hurtles downhill while the remaining passengers argue about what has happened. Then it pulls into a station. The bump they felt was a fatal crash and they have arrived in hell.


The passengers are chivvied from the train by pantomime demons, and are shown a vision of hell complete with streams of molten lava, trident-bearing torturers, and numerous advertisements for burn lotions. The passengers start to wonder what they have done to end up here. One of them, however, is a large young man called Mr Watts, and he refuses to go along with these theatrics. Hurling a demon aside by his tail, he starts to shout, “I DON’T BELIEVE IT!” At this, the very landscape begins to crumble and, as he persists with his disbelief, all that is left is the Tube train to take them back to the everyday world.


Almost all the other passengers are relieved and grateful, but one is a middle-aged City man called Mr Forkett, who sees the annihilation of hell as a subversive act that threatens public confidence in an institution of considerable standing. “If enough people believe in an institution,” he says to Mr Watts, “then it is important to those people – whether it is what you call phoney, or not.”


They do not settle their dispute, but Mr Forkett keeps an eye on the young man as the Tube disgorges them at St. Paul’s. Mr Gray, pumped up with his new-found power and understanding, is staring at the Bank of England. Once more he starts to shout, “I… DON’T… BE…” and the building starts to sway and tremble. At this point, Mr Forkett, fearful for another institution resting entirely on public confidence, pushes him under a bus. “After all,” he says, “tradition must be observed.”


So there it is: when a character stops believing in the narrative, even the landscape falls apart. Of course, academic concerns about the construction of fiction aren’t the reason I’ve kept the story with me since boyhood, or that I’ve told it to a dozen or more clients over the years. That was to make a much more useful point. Many of my clients inhabit a world constructed by others that has little to do with objective reality, let alone the perspectives they might have developed had they been given the time and space to do so. Usually it is parents who do this, bringing their own traumas and neuroses to the business of raising children, though often they are little more than stewards for the culture in which they themselves were raised. The creative child, brought up by parents obsessed with exams; the chubby girl, endlessly criticised by a stick-insect mother; the sensitive, shy boy, whose parents really want a bluff prop-forward; the list goes on and on. It is a rare gift, though I see it sometimes, for a child to think, at twelve, or nine, or even six, “This is their way, but it is not mine; I must wait it out.” Most children simply assume the world they have been shown is real, and that they are somehow defective for not fitting into it. These are the ones who, in later life, need to howl, “I DO NOT BELIEVE IT!” The thing that Wyndham got wrong is that the world they know does not then collapse immediately. It is a long job to tear it down, and they must shout loud and often.


But one thing Wyndham did get right, and I have seen this too, many times. If they do threaten to make the world they have known totter and fall, there will usually be someone close by ready to push them under a bus.

Post-fiction (22 Sep 20)

A man who cared about stories

Somewhere in the late 1950s, my father was a small-time estate agent with offices in both Wolverhampton and nearby Bilston. “Offices” sounds rather grand, since in each case he leased a staircase in a grimy building on the edges of those midland town centres. To make ends meet, he sublet space to other users. One long-term occupant of his Wolverhampton staircase was the Leeds and Holbeck Building Society, which ran a seedy branch office in the town for years, but his favourite sub-tenant was undoubtedly a middle-aged man who rented a small office from him in Bilston. Introducing himself as Walter Hughes, he said we was trying to write and needed some space where he could have quiet and stay anonymous. Whenever he could, he would appear, tap away at a manual typewriter, pay his rent and, once in a while, slide out unobtrusively to the Post Office with a thick wad of typescript.


It was therefore with great delight that my father later discovered, in the children’s library in Wolverhampton, an emergent strand of science fiction written by one Hugh Walters. In a series of 20 books written between 1957 and 1979, a multinational team consisting of two Britons, a Russian and an American pretty much explored the whole solar system from Blast Off at Woomera (1957) to the twelfth book, Nearly Neptune (1968), which is where I left the series behind.


Walter Hughes (illustrated) died in 1993 and such biographical notes as survive give a clue to his diffidence in approaching the whole idea of writing. He ran a family furniture business in Bilston and was a well-known figure in the town. He later said: "As I was also a magistrate and a local councillor, I felt [that writing science fiction] left me open to ridicule. People tend to treat science fiction as a bit of a joke, so I juggled with my name and came up with Hugh Walters."


Much has happened to date the stories that Walters wrote. The whole space race thing was dead long before the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and the idea that Britain might play any more than the most peripheral part in any new initiatives is now faintly ridiculous. Even the planets themselves are no longer the same, with our knowledge hugely augmented by numerous robot – note that, unmanned – expeditions. None of the Walters books are in print anymore, but they are still collectable, and remain on the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society recommended reading list for children and young adults. Even better, by a remarkable coincidence, Blast Off at Woomera has just been released on Kindle, with two more becoming available for the first time today. By the end of the year, 18 books of the series will be available, though general opinion rates the first 13 as the best, including the one where a Soviet cosmonaut is trapped in a pothole five miles under Dudley. To quote one Amazon reviewer, “The [thirteenth] book marked the end of the exploratory tales as the author didn't believe they could reach the nearest star system in a believable way. The integrity is to be applauded but sadly this and the subsequent 5 books in the series replaced tension-packed adventures with mediocre tales of detective work and pleasant aliens, leading to diminishing returns. The weak ending can't tarnish the memory of the brilliant earlier books.”


Integrity. That’s an important point I think. Being able to portray things in a believable way was important to Walters, but that does not mean he shied away from the magical realm to make his stories work. For instance, in Mission to Mercury, he decided that the planet’s proximity to the sun would make radio transmissions impossible between earth and his spacecraft. To get round this, he enlisted a bit of blonde-haired totty in the shape of telepathic identical twins. The idea was that one of them stayed on the earth and the other roughed it out in space with the chaps. Just to underline the interchangeability of totty in the 1960s, the one who had trained for the first trip was injured (or something, I can’t quite recall), so the other took her place on the rocket, much to everyone’s surprise. Ah, such larks… different times. Recruiting telepaths turned out to be very useful for the longer trips too, with their powers working instantaneously, unlike radio waves that took hours to make the return journey. Who knew? I’m not mocking here, I’m pointing out that every science fiction writer who has ever lived has had to create a world in which the reality has to be at least a bit bent, or possibly overridden entirely, in order to get the story out. When Jules Verne penned his Journey to the Centre of the Earth he ignored all the realities of pressure, temperature and gravity to knock out a tale that would last the test of time. When Chief Engineer Scott reported to the bridge of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek that “She cannae do it, Captain; she just cannae do it”, he was not pointing out that a few tiny fictional crystals were unable to defy the laws of physics and propel a gigantic space ship beyond the limits of possibility outlined by Albert Einstein, he was merely saying that, in the context of the story being told, the needle was in the red zone.


It is fine to have magical stuff in stories. You can have ghosts and dragons; you can have impossible stellar hyperdrives and shrinking submarines that will pass through a human capillary; you can talk to the animals, you can have flying carpets, and Britain can rule twentieth-century space-waves. All it requires is for those in the story to believe it is so.


Over the last few months I have watched rather a lot on Netflix. Much of it has been very, very good, but a great deal has been distinctly ho-hum. In this latter category has been Away, a US science fiction series starring Hilary Swank about the first manned mission to Mars. It is hard to resist comparisons with the missions that Hugh Walters imagined. The line-up of astronauts is again international, but this time there are two women, including the commander and a Chinese lesbian, plus a visually-impaired Russian and an Indian doctor-pilot. There is even a Brit, though he is rather far down the pecking order: a rookie in space, black and – rather mind-bendingly – Jewish. It is a right load of old nonsense, achingly slow at times, as saccharine as middle-America can stand, and yet, for those of us brought up on Verne, Wells, Clark, Asimov, Heinlein and Walters, let alone the real-life inspiration of Soyuz and Apollo, there is something irresistible about space fiction. I watched it to its apple-pie end.


In the eighth of its ten episodes, the supply ship that has preceded the crewed lander to Mars seems to have been lost on descent through its atmosphere. That’s a plausible assumption: a huge proportion of robot craft have come to grief negotiating the difficult task of landing safely on a planet that has an atmosphere, but only a very thin one. Unfortunately, the water purification system on the main ship has failed and the crew are surviving on meagre reserves in the hope of using the system on the supply ship when they land alongside. Landing now looks like certain death, but neither do they have enough water just to loop round Mars and return home. A second supply ship is behind them but it would land too late to save the crew. The consulting engineer, who also happens to be the husband’s recently-paralysed husband, suggests a way to save them. He points out that, by swinging round Mars back towards Earth, the crew can meet the second supply ship just before their water supplies run out. “Both vehicles have docking capabilities,” he says, “there’s no reason they can’t.”


At this moment I felt proud to be British. The Brit on the international steering committee looks a bit like an underpowered Terry Thomas. He is straight from central casting and just needs a monocle and a cigar to complete the stereotype. All the same, he makes a good point: “The reason is, they’d be flying at each other at 32,000 kilometres an hour.”


And they ignore him. With barely a beat to let that crucial information sink in, the steering committee just start talking about other things. Resupplying from the second support ship remains the favoured option until the crew in space work out that the first support ship was not destroyed and is probably where it is supposed to be. So the characters notice the massive problem of two ships encountering each other at nine kilometres per second, but they never think to sort it out. This is where magical thinking should come in. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated. All one of the backroom staff has to say is something like, “Ah, yes well we anticipated this at the design stage and built a special mechanism into the supply ship for launching stuff backwards at that sort of speed.” It’s not much better than the old “With one bound he was free”, but at least it makes sense in the context of the story. It’s fine for the reader to notice scientific and logical anomalies, and believe me there are plenty of those in Away, but once the characters themselves start catching on, all credibility is shot.


I would probably just pass this by as a bit of (very) lazy programme-making, had I not had a similar experience just a few days before. Even more to my taste than science fiction is the police procedural, and Netflix offers examples from many different countries and cultures. The more interesting of two Finnish police procedurals I came across there is called Bordertown (in Finland: Sorjonen), and it features a number of familiar tropes: a lead character with Asperger’s, a glacially-handsome wife recovering from a brain tumour, two rebellious teenage daughters whose main function is to be threatened and kidnapped, a sociopathic partner newly-retired from the Russian FSB, and an exasperated boss, who finds the lead detective just too good to sack. Good sound stuff. It’s a bit slow and God knows what moral universe they all live in, but it’s worth a watch if there’s a pandemic on.


Episode eight begins a two part story called The Lady in the Lake. It opens with the disturbing sight of a woman imprisoned in a heavy steel fish trap at the bottom of a lake. Bubbles rise and her fingers twitch. We see she is breathing through a hosepipe whose other end rests on the shore. Within a couple of scenes she is out of the lake and on a ventilator in hospital, her skin horribly corrupted by what turns out to be two or three days in cold water. A tired and lovely paramedic is explaining to a police officer: “Normally it is not possible to breathe through a tube like that…” Indeed it is not. We have seen that the woman was trapped at least several metres beneath the surface, and a moment’s thought makes it clear that human lungs would be unable to inflate at depth using lower pressure air drawn from the surface. Let us leave aside for a moment that a normally-clad person would die of hypothermia within a very few hours if submerged in lake-cold water at a latitude of 61o north, or than an unpressurised tube would probably be squashed flat anyway. That’s just routine TV magic. The main thing is that breathing through a tube at the bottom of a lake is simply not possible, one of the characters spotted it, and nothing was ever done to explain it.


The idea of “post-truth politics” flowered around the time of the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US Presidential Election, and “post-truth” was named Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionary, where it is defined as "Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". But of course it’s a much older idea; people have always been lying to us and trying to mess with our reality, and we’re used to it. We think it little worse than fair game to paint a misleading figure on the side of a bus at the height of a crucial political debate, or to say the UK has a world-class test and trace system, or to blame rampant fires in the western United States on poor forest management. There’s nothing new here. Such statements are no more post-truth than the Crusades, the French Revolution and the events that led to the First World War.


But what we always had, to hold it all together, were stories. No matter what ghastliness the real world presents us, there’s always an opportunity to find meaning in the fictions we construct in our own heads. Very few people of my generation go through therapy training or embark on a serious period of self-development without coming across Viktor Frankl and his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, where he describes how the stories he told himself enabled him to survive the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. He went on to found Logotherapy, while another branch of psychotherapy, Narrative Therapy, is about helping people to generate helpful stories about themselves. In my opinion virtually all good therapy is about creating stories that make sense. We stitch together the holes we find in reality with a sturdy web of fiction that suits our character and outlook. And, please note, in this context I have not even mentioned religion.


It is not important that those stories are literally, scientifically correct. What does matter is that they are internally coherent and make sense in their own terms. How could we take anything from the Bible if Moses had refused to believe in an endlessly-burning bush? How could we remember Gulliver if he had waited for his dream about the little people to go away? Where would young James have been if could not have accepted the reality of flying snowmen? Mess with the story’s premises within the story itself, and you’re in trouble.


Perhaps it is nothing. Maybe I have just spotted a couple of careless loose ends that reflect nothing of the zeitgeist of our times. What does it matter that a caricature Englishman and a strikingly-beautiful Finnish paramedic have noticed that the stories in which they dwell do not make sense – that the very fictional framework they inhabit is flawed to the point of meaninglessness? Or is it something in our fabric that is starting to unravel? Have the breaches in the real world now become so crude and savage that we are starting to treat the patches and fixes we have always used with the same degree of carelessness? Just as we have taken the world of post-truth to our collective bosoms, are we about to do the same with post-fiction?


I hope not. We do so at our peril.

We Are All Serial Killers Now (11 Apr 20)

At this point, in the third week of Coronavirus lockdown, we are being exhorted from all sides to look after our mental health, as though it was something definite and unwavering, like a stuffed animal in a glass case. All over the internet are helpful articles extolling the virtues of routine, exercise, staying in touch with loved ones, maintaining a sense of agency, and finding new and creative ways to pass the time. For the most part these point to the dangers of physical isolation, being cooped up with loved ones, boredom, and news overload as sources of erosive mental stress.


It’s all true, but it’s not quite the whole story. It would be easy to conclude from such advice that the psychological problems arising from social isolation and the curtailment of freedom may all be attributed to not being able to do good things and having to do bad ones instead. Unfortunately, we humans are a little more complicated than this.


Joan Smith is a writer and journalist with a leftist, feminist, secularist slant who campaigns on human rights and freedom of speech. In 1989 she wrote an excellent little volume of essays called Misogynies, which included one argument which has stayed with me in the thirty years since I first read it. In the longest chapter of the book, There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper, Ms. Smith brilliantly explains how preconceived opinions, based largely on misogyny embedded deep within in the West Yorkshire police, facilitated a murderous campaign that left 13 women dead and several others horribly injured. It was a trail of brutality that started in summer 1975 and went on until January 1981, during which the murderer, a lorry-driver named Peter Sutcliffe, was questioned by police on nine separate occasions. Even where he did arouse the suspicions of junior officers, they were never followed up by those central to the investigation. The detectives in charge had decided they were looking for a Geordie prostitute-hater who would palpably drip evil if he ever came within their grasp, and to this end they ignored much good evidence that should have saved several lives, and instead wrapped into the case much nonsense that allowed it to drag on for years. In the end, Sutcliffe, a born-and-bred Yorkshireman who made no moral distinctions between the women whose sexuality he furiously attacked, was a calm and inconspicuous man who was only caught when uniformed officers from a neighbouring police force spotted false number plates on his car.


Arresting (or not-arresting-enough) as this story is, and it has now been told many times, this is not the point from Ms. Smith’s essay that I have always remembered. This related to the defence and sentencing of Sutcliffe, who pleaded not guilty to the murder of 13 victims, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He claimed that he had been acting as a tool of God after hearing voices urging him to kill prostitutes. He had managed to convince four psychiatrists that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and, together with a guilty plea to seven counts of attempted murder, his defence team had effectively brokered a deal with the prosecution that he would be sentenced on this basis. After lengthy deliberations, however, the trial judge, Sir Leslie Boreham, rejected the plea of diminished responsibility and insisted the case go to full trial. All now hinged on whether Sutcliffe was bad, in which case he would serve a life term of at least 30 years, or merely mad, which could mean release in as little as 10. The jury at the Old Bailey had little doubt, however, finding him guilty on all 20 counts, each of which carried a sentence of life imprisonment.


Sutcliffe began his sentence at HMP Parkhurst on 22 May 1981, where he was again diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and it was in the hospital wing there that he suffered the first of several serious attacks by other inmates. Less than three years after his trial, he was confined to Broadmoor Hospital under Section 47 of the Mental Health Act 1983. The only thing louder than the clanging of the door behind him was the muttering of four forensic psychiatrists saying, *I told you so.”


The experts said he was mad. The judge and the jury disagreed, but the experts were right. It couldn’t be more straightforward.


Strangely, Ms. Smith sees it differently, and she makes an interesting and persuasive case. No-one could argue that Peter Sutcliffe was not a bizarrely-tortured soul with a violent hatred of female sexuality. Ms. Smith attributes this in part to being brought up in a brutal, masculine world “in which violence to woman – wives, girlfriends, prostitutes – was a routine part of life”, and in part again to a desperate need to expunge the feminine side of his own nature, which he saw as vulnerable and needy, by destroying the feminine parts of the women he attacked. Nonetheless, for most of the time he came across as a quiet, courteous husband, a very good worker, and a man who could endure the pressure of repeated police questioning without coming across as more than a person of interest. In short, at least when he wanted to, he could usually function pretty well, with the outward signs of the conflicts within him lost within the aggressive macho culture of the times, salient now largely through the lens of hindsight.


Ms. Smith suggests that Peter Sutcliffe was not mad while he was at large and committing the crimes that eventually led him to the Old Bailey, and that it was the commission of those crimes that kept him sane. Somehow the savage, sexualised attacks to which he subjected his victims served as some sort of safety valve, assuaging the titanic conflicts that raged within him. Take away that safety valve and he would be overwhelmed by their power, finally sinking into something much more recognisable as a general form of insanity. In the event, Sutcliffe was not found free from mental illness and returned to prison until August 2016.


It’s an intriguing idea, that perhaps everything we do, not just going to the gym or taking brisk walks in the countryside, might be keeping us on the right side of madness. We may not all need to indulge in the barbarities of a ripper-style murderer, but perhaps – in a lesser way – our sins and vices are just as important to our normal functioning as the warm and wholesome clean-living that is urged upon us now. The list may run from acknowledged transgressions such as football violence, shoplifting, drug dealing, and embezzlement, through unquestionable taboos such as racism, bullying at work, drink-driving and tax avoidance, to mere social faux-pas such as farting in lifts or eating the last meringue. Perhaps these are the things that we need to go on doing in order to look normal to our friends and neighbours.


If the smooth functioning of individuals and the society they inhabit really does rest counterintuitively on such activities, then it seems likely that most of us will not know exactly what it is that keeps us sane. All we can surmise is that, if we are suddenly stopped from doing a lot of familiar things all at once, we may be losing crucial props. The world seems to be in crisis now, but I suspect this is the easy bit. All most of us have to do is stay at home and watch more TV, while many of the rest are grippingly absorbed in vital tasks that leave little room for reflection or self-doubt. Whether it will take weeks or months, at some point more will be asked of us, to rebuild lives, relationships, businesses, institutions and even whole economies. That is when we will find out how much damage has been done. At the moment we are like tents on a calm, sunny day, whose guy-ropes have been loosened and pegs removed. The odd flysheet sags from time to time, but the camp retains its shape. However, when the wind blows and the rain falls, we will be in trouble. This is not a good thought, but it should alert us of the need to be sensitive and imaginative when it comes to getting ourselves through the current crisis and the recovery period beyond. I’m not saying we should all start murdering prostitutes, even if it did not contravene social distancing rules, but learning the saxophone may just not be enough.

Ketchup (25 Aug 19)

I have just returned from a fortnight’s holiday in a rented house on the Isle of Lewis. There is not much to do on Lewis, and it was noticeable that the televisions in rental properties there are generally bigger and more capable than in those in the rest of Britain. As is usual these days, there was a selection of DVDs in the living room, and these included one of my favourite musicals.


On the whole I am not much given to musicals, but my all-time top-20 list of films might well include a couple. Cabaret is one I am not too embarrassed about, but the other, Meet Me in St. Louis, is more of a secret pleasure. It is an apparently simple story of the Smiths, an American family looking forward to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and dealing with the news that they might have to move to New York before it opens. Nancy Astor and Leon Ames play the parents of a son and four daughters, while the film serves as a vehicle for Judy Garland, as daughter number two, and child star Margaret O’Brien, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the youngest girl. The male leads are fairly weak; there is virtually no plot; and the score lacks the driving vigour of the Richard Rodgers musicals of the same era, delivering just two instantly-recognisable hits in The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.


For all its faults, there is a coherence to Meet Me in St. Louis that sees off many a better production. The American public thought so too, for the film grossed around $7 million on its original release. This might seem like lunch money for Chris Hemsworth or Bradley Cooper today, but at the time it was more than for any film made by MGM in the previous 20 years, with the one exception of its runaway success, Gone with The Wind.


Meet Me in St. Louis premiered in St. Louis in November 1944 and was being distributed across the States by the following January. The year that preceded it was perhaps America’s toughest in World War II. Its troops had fought their way up Italy through four battles at Anzio and the subsequent occupation of Rome, finishing high on the east coast beyond Rimini and pushing into southern France. They had taken part in the largest amphibious operation ever staged, the D-Day landings, had broken out of Normandy to take Paris and the Channel ports, and were poised for weeks of the grimmest fighting in the Ardennes. In the Pacific, US forces had hopped from island to island, retaking the Marshall Islands, Guam, and the rest of the Marianas, and were liberating the Philippines. With over a million casualties in total, the US suffered more combat losses in the Second World War than they had in any war before or since and, although it is hard to get figures for individual years,1944 was almost certainly the most expensive. With the Germans preparing to make their final stand on home territory, the Red Army massing equivocally behind them, and the Japanese threatening to defend every inch of their own islands, it seemed quite likely that 1945 would be even worse.


The subtext of Meet Me in St. Louis is not hard to read. It is summarised near the end of the film by Mr. Smith, after he announces that he won’t be moving the family to New York after all: “New York hasn't got a copyright on opportunity. St. Louis is headed for a boom that'll make your head swim. This is a great town. You don't appreciate it because it's right here under your noses. The grass is always greener in somebody else's yard.” Even more succinctly, the smallest girl says, “Wasn’t I lucky to be born in my favorite city?”  It’s a call for national unity. Nowhere in the States is better than anywhere else. We’re all fighting for the same thing.


I have long maintained that all American films carry the same message: family is best, and this is certainly pushed to near-saccharine proportions in Meet Me in St. Louis. Of course, the other great archetype that Hollywood films explore is that of the rugged individualist. Very often these two ideas are treated as polar opposites, as in some classic westerns, where the hero struggles to integrate with the ordinary society he encounters (e.g. High Noon and The Tin Star, and may end up heading into the sunset as lonely and cynical as he came (e.g. Shane and High Plains Drifter). In Meet Me in St. Louis, the twin archetypes of family and individualism are not set at odds, but are allowed to lap against each other as comfortable cross-currents. Nowhere is this clearer than in piece of a domestic business that otherwise adds little to the overall plot.


In the first proper scene of the film, Mrs Smith and the family maid, Katie, are making ketchup. Mrs Smith thinks it’s perfect, bearing in mind that her husband likes it quite sweet, but Katie finds it too sweet. The eldest son comes in and picks up the spoon without invitation. He thinks it isn’t spicy enough. When Judy Garland’s character arrives, she too makes automatically for the pot. With a doubtful look at her mother, she queries, “Too sour?” A little later it is Grandpa’s turn: “Too thin”, he says. We then see it poured into bottles, ready for the pantry. It is their ketchup, and they all have a strong sense of ownership about it, but there is room for them each to have an opinion. We can sense from outside something they must feel for themselves: the fact that each of their separate opinions pulls in a different direction makes it just about right for them all. It is a perfect model of individual action within a collective purpose. How important was that in 1944 and 1945, when young men from all over a widely disparate nation were asked to make personal sacrifice in a common cause?


It is, of course, in the nature of us British to go on and on about the Second World War. It really was our finest hour, and nothing that has happened since suggests we will change that very soon. It should be a matter of concern to all of us that far from valuing individual action within a collective purpose – something we did then every bit as well as the Americans – British energies have now sunk to a level of strident tribalism in support of contradictory purposes. It is worth reading Nick Duffell, a British psychotherapist and writer who has launched blistering attacks on British social organisation and, most particularly, the boarding school system that supports its executive layers. His book, (Wounded Leaders:  British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion – a Psychohistory is a pleasing and insightful rant which ranges widely and even links the English Reformation with the habitual underperformance of the England football team. In Chapter 8 he talks about how the “disidentified and disowned, the loathed and feared” have come back “to attack the rational world of the middle classes”. He says this is “simply a return to form after some years of extraordinary national unity produced by the Second World War.”


It is quite a thought. We are not so much going to hell in a handcart as going back to hell in a handcart. Hell doesn’t look the same in 2019 as it did in the early years of the twentieth century, or the nineteenth, but it is still hell. We just haven’t put the work in. For decades now we have coasted to the comforting strains of the Dam Buster March and the Dad’s Army theme tune, but the wounds inherent in the highly stratified and unequal society we have had for centuries have re-emerged. We have had the chance to do something different but we have failed to take it.

Holding On (28 Nov 18)

I have a bit of sympathy with the chap at the end of the 2018 Waitrose Christmas advert. Commenting about the John Lewis advert that he and his wife have just raced through, he says, “I prefer the one with the penguin.”


Of course he prefers the one with the penguin. In 2014, ad-agency adam&eveDBB scaled the heights of advertising excellence with Monty the Penguin: a story that was as moving and effective as it was insightful and succinct. However, after that lofty pinnacle at the end of several years of highly-successful Christms adverts, John Lewis lost their way, and this year’s one-dimensional and undistinguished offering fails to restore their position.


Of course, there are few things in life that aren’t improved by a penguin. If you’re not a fish, penguins are lovely.


My favourite urban legend concerns a penguin. It was told to me in all seriousness by my mother when I was about 15. A young boy on a school trip to Dudley Zoo had noticed how the profile of penguins so closely matched that of the duffle bag he was carrying: the old-fashioned round sort with a drawstring at the top. Somehow he managed to pop one in when no one was looking, and his theft was only discovered in the coach on the way home. It’s an almost perfect urban legend, as defined in The Vanishing Hitchhiker, a wonderful book written by Jan Harold Brunvand in 1981. The story is implausible but there’s an attractive resonance to it and a nice bit of local detail. Most importantly, and this is the sine qua non of an urban legend, at least in its early stages, it was told to my mum by someone who knew someone who knew the people it had happened to. Those three degrees of separation crop up time and time again in the birth of urban legends. And, once you stick a penguin in the story, everyone wants to believe it.


Although I stay up-to-date with Christmas adverts, I am often one or two series behind with Attenborough-narrated nature extravaganzas. Just as Dynasties is rolling across our screens this autumn, complete with penguins –– well, the marketing people aren’t mad are they? -–– I thought it was about time to start watching Planet Earth II, a six-parter that first came out two years ago.


There is one scene from this series that everyone seems to remember, and it comes in the first episode. In the Galapagos, young marine iguanas hatch from the sand and pelt across an open beach to the sea’s edge, pursued by deadly racer snakes. Even without a snake phobia it is pretty chilling; if you have one, it must be terrifying. However, the sequence that I found most affecting came near the end of the programme, on sub-antarctic Zavodovski island, where the world’s largest colony of chinstrap penguins was raising its chicks under a malevolent canopy of circling skuas. Every day, one of the parent pair had to leap from storm-battered rocks and cliffs to feed in the chilly but fecund waters of the South Atlantic, returning within 24 hours with a full belly to share with the growing chicks. Then the other parent would take its turn with the hunting. Notwithstanding the difficulties of finding the right mate and offspring in a colony of 1.2 million birds, the most perilous part of each expedition was getting into and out of the sea, with a shore-line of jagged lava and surf spurting tens of feet into the air. The main programme contained a shot of one penguin returning to its nest bloody but unbowed –– black and white and red all over, as the old joke goes –– but the short Diaries segment at the end, which generally goes behind the scenes and explains how certain scenes were shot, hinted at images of much more devastating carnage. They didn’t show many of them here –– well, the marketing people aren’t mad are they? -–– but they did show a few more shots of bloodied birds and, most distressingly of all, one poor penguin trying to limp home with a clearly broken leg.


It was about two seconds of film, but it has stayed with more more than the rest of the hour. That penguin looked in a really bad way, but he (or she) wasn’t giving up. If it failed to shuffle its way the mile or two across volcanic ash and tephra to find its mate and chicks, then it and the chicks would die, and its mate would face the agonising choice of leaving its chicks to the skuas or staying to starve to death with them. If it managed to get home, relieve its mate and feed its chicks, then everything would depend on whether it had enough strength and mobility to fend off the skuas, and whether its mate was able to do back-to-back hunting trips continuously for weeks to keep both its chicks and its mate alive. Both looked extremely doubtful. That family was doomed.


It is not hard to find examples of unimaginable harshness in the natural world, but this one touched me on the raw. There are no safety nets on Zavodovski island; no welfare organisations; no hospitals for the injured or hospices for the dying. It made me reflect on the fact that, of the quintillions and sextillions (and whatever comes next) of animals that have squirmed, wriggled, swum, walked and flown upon the earth since animals started to exist, probably the vast majority of them have died either as a result of starving to death or of being eaten alive. Ironically, the million or so chinstrap penguins of Zavodovski island may well have been exceptions to this tendency. Earlier in the same year as that first showing of Planet Earth II, Mount Curry, an active volcano that is also known as Mount Asphyxia, started to erupt and shower the colony with hot ash and smoke. With the chinstraps undergoing their annual moult, the birds would have been unable to escape by swimming away.


Anyway, my point is simple, in the developed, western world, one has to be very, very, very unlucky to suffer a fate so pitiless as that of the poor bird who touched my heart. However bad things get for the vast majority of us, it’s never as bad a being a penguin with a broken leg.


Last weekend I attended my second get-together of psychotherapists since moving to Scotland. Both have been very good, and I may write about the first in the weeks to come, but for now I just want to mention Saturday’s event, the Annual Conference of UKCP’s Scottish Public Policy Forum. It was held in a building that looked a bit like an up-market borstal, just off Sauchiehall Street, and there was a modest turn-out of some 25 people. Not only was the event free, but it also featured a very good free lunch. The theme for the day was holding. In psychological terms, holding is the process which provides safe frameworks within which a person (i.e. a client) may feel supported, and be encouraged to express emotions safely and reflect on those emotions and understand them. It is similar to, but not quite the same as, the psychotherapeutic concept of containment.


The key thrust of the day was the presentation of a report called: Holding and Distress: Considerations for the community’s response to severely distressed people, but to be honest I found it as woolly and unsatisfactory as I do all social science. More interesting was a presentation by Susie Lendrum, who talked through some of the things that can go wrong in small therapy-providing organisations when therapeutic principles are not woven well into management structures. Theo Dijkman and Eileen McAlister did an exercise to show how instrumental relationships can get tangled and twisted in a real case issue. Watching seven middle-aged people standing in the middle of a circle and tying themselves up with string took me back to training days, and gave me a few moments of deep happiness.


It is strange but I have really liked both of the events I have so far attended in Scotland. Back in Sussex I couldn’t get home fast enough, and always took myself off at lunchtime and breaks. I am not a great one for networking and had little curiosity about my colleagues. Here in Scotland, I linger and chat. I find out about people. I talk to them, get ideas from them, and exchange contact details. What on earth is going on? It’s not that the soil up here is rich and fertile. Most often the talk is of how difficult it is to find clients, how far people had to travel to find a training, how Scottish culture does not lend itself to asking for help or expecting to find it. We are beasts of a sparse and unforgiving habitat. We might not quite be classified as critically endangered, but we are perhaps in the “vulnerable” category. It is making me a better neighbour. Adversity appeals to me. Like the chinstrap penguins, huddled together on the acrid slopes between Noxious Bluff and Pungent Point (I am not making this up), Scottish psychotherapists are holding on.

Belonging (20 Nov 18)

Back in the golden age of Hollywood, a lazy journalist prompted my second-favourite telegram of all time. Not bothering to consult library sources, he simply wired Cary Grant’s agent with the blunt question, “HOW OLD CARY GRANT?” The actor himself opened the telegram and wired back, “OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?”


Splendid though this is, pride of place in the now obsolete field of telegraphic excellence must go to G. K. Chesterton. As a regular but absent-minded traveller, he struggled to stay on top of his itinerary. As a result, he once sent his wife the immortal eight words: “AM IN WOLVERHAMPTON. WHERE OUGHT I TO BE?”


This was not an example of a self-conscious witticism or a pithy put-down, just a cry for help from a lost man who had a feeling he was in the wrong place. Of course, it has special resonance for anyone actually from Wolverhampton, and –– that being the case for me –– it summarises the first nineteen years of my life. For many, many years, through my twenties and thirties, and even into my forties, as the bright hopes of youth tarnished more and more with a sad film of experience, I could still lie awake at night and think, “Whatever else has gone wrong, at least I got out of Wolverhampton.”


When Elsie was still a puppy we had a short holiday in Norfolk, in a substantial village called Laxfield. On the last day I treated myself to half-an-hour in the fine parish church, which has much to recommend it still, despite the depredations of the Reformation which were particularly enthusiastic in those parts. But I don’t remember the fine dimensions or the superb fifteenth-century Seven Sacraments font so much as a simple poem I found in the south aisle, clearly the work of a local school project. A thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl had written very touchingly about how glad she was that she lived in Laxfield. I wish I had photographed the poem, and had the words to hand now, but I have never forgotten the sentiments. I realised that I had never, ever felt such a simple sense of belonging as that young lady managed to convey.


Nevertheless, as time wore on, I did catch the odd moment of pride for the town that had seen me to adulthood. There was the Sunday lunchtime I was sitting in a country pub a few miles west of Wolverhampton, listening to a family who had clearly come out for the day. Three generations of Wulfrunians were arguing about the Latin names of birds, and my heart did a little flip of pleasure as I listened to them. Then there was a visit to the Black Country Museum, on a grey autumn day when the smell of small coal, artistically piled up in the rain, took me straight back to the open fires of my childhood. In the cafeteria, by late afternoon there remained just three types of sandwich. Next to a “Three-Cheese Sandwich” was the altogether more affluent “Four-Cheese Sandwich”, overshadowed only by its neighbour, the “Five-Cheese Sandwich”. You have to admire a place for spotting a good idea and running with it. It was not really until my mid-fifties that I began to feel the warmth of the region that grew me, and nursed the faintest of thoughts that perhaps, one day, I might live there again. Recently I watched, The Boy with the Topknot, a TV adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s attempts to reconcile his Wolverhampton family with the new life he had made for himself in London. The contrast between his life and mine left me in tears.


And now I live in Stirling. Stirling is not just in Scotland, it is at the heart of Scottishness. A brisk ten-minute ascent from my front door takes Elsie and I to the gates of Stirling Castle. There a statue of Robert the Bruce stares heroically down to the Thistles Shopping Centre, and tourists are sure to get him pictured against the massive monument to William Wallace, a mile-and-a-half away across the Forth. William Wallace won his defining battle at Stirling Bridge, just below the castle walls, in 1297, while Robert I won the battle that gave birth to true Scottish nationhood at Bannockburn, which is now a suburb of Stirling, two miles away to the south. There another statue of King Robert presides over the Bannockburn memorial and Elsie’s new vet’s. Wallace, not to be outdone, has his second memorial beneath the clock-tower in the centre of town. Within a few yards of the castle walls there are monuments to Robbie Burns, Rob Roy and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Scotland’s last successful Prime Minister. There is even an information board about Billy Bremner.


Stirling was the capital of Scotland from the twelfth century until after the Stewarts moved to London to succeed Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots second husband, Lord Darnley, played the second oldest-recorded game of golf at the end of our road, and their son, the future James Vi and I was anointed in the Church of the Holy Rood, at the town end of the castle mound. James III is buried here, near the spot where, much earlier, the great Kenneth Macalpin defeated the Picts to become the first king of a united Scotland. Stirling has been called the “Gateway to the Highlands”, and “a huge broach that clasps Highlands and Lowlands together”. “He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland”, it is said, a point that has been demonstrated, in bloody detail, on numerous occasions over the centuries. When I step outside my back door in the all-too-brief summer months, I hear bagpipes from the castle ramparts above. It is hard to live here and pretend I’m still in Sussex.


Just as I was considering the matter myself, a recent article on, one of the therapist listing sites, discussed the issue of belonging. Counsellor Daniel Wiegand initially felt like a fish out of water when he moved with his partner to New York: 

I would ask myself what it meant to belong somewhere. What does it mean to be part of a community? For me, it wasn’t necessarily about being in a particular geographical location. It was about being seen and heard and acknowledged by the people I lived amongst. And also me seeing and hearing them too. Belonging is about having connections and relationships with others, they are the light in which we shine and flourish. As Carl Rogers himself said: ‘When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to see my world in a new way and move on.’ Without this sense of belonging, or being seen and heard, an important part of me was slowly withering away. Belonging and being part of a community is the blood that keeps us alive, it is the magic that holds people together.


Hmm. I’m not sure about being seen and acknowledged by the people I live amongst. I have generally lived outside the local groups and organisations that make up a community. I don’t do good works or have a favourite pub; I don’t make friends easily or chat for the sake of chatting. I can tell myself that standing apart is a proper way for therapists to behave –– we don’t want to be bumping into our clients all the time socially, and putting them, and us, into awkward positions –– but in reality I think this is just an excuse. I have found a job that justifies my own introversion and misanthropy. I came across a splendid quotation the other day, in a book a by David Foster Wallace that a client gave me when I left Sussex: 

Lonely people tend… to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other people. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.

I quibble a bit at the word “lonely”, but I know what he means. In some ways it would be nice to be seen and acknowledged by the people I live amongst, but in others it would be an awful lot of trouble. Surely there are other ways of belonging?


A rather beautiful poem at the Bannockburn memorial suggests there might just be. Curved oak beams are held aloft above grey block walls to form a rotunda at the spot where Robert the Bruce is said to have raised his standard in 1314, and on these are carved nine short lines, a modern creation by Kathleen Jamie that she describes as a profound bow to an earlier Scottish literary tradition. The poem is called, Here Lies Our Land:


Here lies our land: every airt 

Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,

Belonging to none but itself.


We are mere transients, who sing 

Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes, 

Northern lights and siller tides,


Small folk playing our part. 

‘Come all ye’, the country says,

You win me, who take me most to heart.


Taking Scotland to heart is a challenge, of course, but perhaps not an impossible one.


All the same, however good I get at it, however much a feeling of belonging I ever manage to generate for myself in this place, there are always going to be those who did it better. The castle hill in Stirling is home to five separate cemeteries, and some of them have glorious views over to the Ochil hills and the Forth flood plain. They all nestle against the stalwart protection of Stirling’s medieval castle walls and are anchored to their rocky outcrops by heavy, handsome trees and soft peaty turf. One of the smaller ones is the Snowdon Cemetery, facing westwards on the shoulder of the castle mound.  On the right of the entrance are a number of Italian graves: settlers who lived here for generations and whose descendants are undoubtedly still around, but on the north side is an even more touching memorial. It is dedicated to the memory of Peter Andrew Dewar who died in 1984, and two tiny babies: Katherine Margaret, who died in 1942, aged four weeks, and Philip, who died twelve years later at 10 days of age. The most striking thing is that the stone was placed there by Peter’s wife and the mother of the two dead children, Sheila, and she died in 2012 at the age of 97. Her name is inscribed in black, in contrast to the white lettering of the rest of the family. Clearly the stone was erected perhaps as much as twenty-eight years before Sheila died, with a suitable space left for her when she did. Sheila Dewar knew where she belonged: between her husband and her children. Her name was going into that space on that stone, no matter how long she had to wait. There was nowhere else for her to be. That is belonging.